There’s a stack of four books in the dusty little shack near the Chilean coast. The camera frames them in close-up. The spines read: Robinson Crusoe, Moby-Dick, Crime and Punishment, and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.
These books are not there by accident. It’s fairly obvious first-time feature director Francisco Bermejo created this little pile. Together, they tell the story of this genre-defying documentary, The Other One, which is playing in Visions du Réel’s Burning Lights International Competition for ‘narrative and formal experimentation’.
Does the man who lives in the shack own the books? Or did Bermejo bring them? It’s impossible to know. The press notes merely state that the man has lived here, alone and isolated from society, for more than forty years. In the documentary, this isn’t even mentioned. Nor why he lives alone, or where exactly this remote location is, or more practical questions about his provisions and contacts with the outside world.
We see two men in the cramped house. They look the same, and it’s no spoiler to say that that they are indeed one person, and not identical twins who somehow refuse to appear in the same frame.
So we must assume they represent different sides of the man’s character. The good and the bad (one drinks and has a temper, and gets scolded by the other), or more accurately the extravert and the introvert. As far as I can tell them apart, there is one who goes fishing and hunting, and another who reads books and plays the harmonica – and drinks.
Having someone openly play himself (which is different, and far more honest than presenting staged scenes as reportage) is a thriving documentary subgenre. The most famous example is Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012), in which Indonesian war criminals re-enact their crimes, styled as different film genres. More recently, in Drama Girl (2020), we saw Dutch director Vincent Boy Kars discuss with his young protagonist how they would re-enact troubled episodes from her personal life.
These films are built upon the assumption that the way the protagonists act their assigned roles tells us something real and true about them. By acting out as movie stars, the Indonesian criminals revealed their pride in their horrific deeds; by re-enacting traumatic situations, the ‘drama girl’ opened up to real emotions.
The Other One, however, is much more confusing. I assume this man really lives in this house. I also assume the furniture, clothes and amenities (some electricity and a radio, but no television, mobile phone or computer) are all as they are in real life. And that the way he provides for himself, by hunting and fishing, is real too.
But what to think of the dialogues he constantly has with himself? While talking to himself, both versions are often wearing different clothes, and doing different things – one can be standing, the other sitting, one inside, one outside – while the film keeps cutting from one to the other.
And they’re not just telling each other lengthy stories, which could have been recorded first, in a traditional way, and then edited together. No, there is constant interaction, with constant shot-reverse-shots, where one man laughs at the other one’s joke, one says ‘what?’ and the other repeats a question, et cetera. And although they never appear in the same frame, their voices do, causing the other to turn around, or look up. All of this must have been scripted and staged, but contrary to the earlier examples, the process of scripting and staging isn’t shown.
Are we then still in the realm of documentary, or have we crossed over to fiction? What about this exchange: ‘Of the two of us, we should make just one.’ ‘And if it doesn’t work?’ ‘I don’t know.’ Or this incomprehensible reproach that one makes to the other: ‘I didn’t have your privileges!’
There is a suggestive scene, in the second half of the compact story of 75 minutes, where the man has a discussion with himself while looking in the mirror. This time, his face and his reflection – ‘the other one’ – are in the same frame. Maybe this is what he does, all the time, and Bermejo first simply recorded it, then rewrote it for dramatic effect. Maybe – but we can’t really know.
And it’s not just the dialogues. A song we hear on the radio (which gets repeated later on) sings of someone having to leave a loved one – which is what’s starting to happen, as the two men argue more and more, and the one tells the other to leave. And when at the beginning, one man – the one who reads – is reading Moby-Dick, the parts we hear read out loud directly concern his situation, mentioning ‘my own inseparable twin brother’.
And so we get to the beached white whale that suddenly appears, defying explanations. It’s almost impossible that it’s not real – it looks too realistic. The man (the one who hunts) cuts it open, and cuts off parts of it. And anyway, where would a debuting documentary director find the budget to fake this so splendidly? But conversely it also seems impossible that it is real – what are the odds of a white whale washing ashore, just as the man is reading Moby-Dick? Or was that the first thing that happened, calling Bermejo to the scene? But if it’s newsworthy, why then is there nobody else? Or is a white whale something you can order online nowadays, and have it delivered to a beach nearby?
I love documentaries testing the boundaries of the genre. And we’ll never discover where those are, unless we cross them. The Other One is a perfect fit for the experimental Burning Lights program, and some wonderfully lit camera work (including a few under water shots turned upside down, reinforcing the idea of a ‘mirror world’), immersive sound design, and the weathered face and expressive postures of the man (both of him), easily keep our attention throughout.
I have one more question, though. I understand what Robinson Crusoe refers to, and The Old Man and the Sea, and Moby-Dick. But why Crime and Punishment? Could it have something to do with the news report we hear on the radio, about the murder of a pregnant woman by her partner? And with that one picture of a young girl in school uniform, with ‘Felicidades Papito 79’ written on it – ‘Congratulations Daddy, 1979’? Could those things, in a documentary which seems to leave very little to chance, point to the reasons why this man left to live with himself, some forty years ago?
Director: Francisco Bermejo